Potato Peels

My mother became a hippy after my second stepdad left with a cigarette hanging from his deceitful lips, and a beat up duffel bag full of his shit slung over his hunched back. Well, that’s how my mother described the farewell; I was at school when the bizarre scene unfolded for all the neighbors to witness. I know my mother howled expletives at him, and she threw her left sandal at him which missed and landed in Ms. Williams’ backyard. I know this because I had to go and retrieve the sandal when I got back from school, and Ms. Williams lectured me on how my mother had a mouth on her like a drunken sailor.

“The words that came out of her mouth,” she muttered with her arms crossed in front of her large frame, “could have scared the devil himself.” I secretly believe that my mother swore the way she did only to shock the neighbors, a phenomenon in my mother’s personality I thought was funny. She was a lady beneath it all, a mixture of spunk and repose, something I never quite mastered, but admired in my mother, despite her poor taste in men.

Smoking the herb became a meditation for my mother after Hank left. But the repetitive motion of peeling potatoes became an obsession with her. I witnessed this act every Sunday morning. It was our ritual to peel potatoes and make a broth out of the skins. “We are never going to eat meat again,” she announced one morning, armed with vegetarian books she had found at a yard sale down the street. “Do you know that processed foods cause cancer,” she lectured. “And,” she said pointing her pinky finger at me, “did you know that cattle AND poultry are injected with Silbestrol, a sex hormone!”

I went along with it. I was the kid that was not allowed to eat junk food of any kind. When I had friends over we drank water from the tap, and munched on carrot sticks and celery stalks. No soft drinks were allowed in our tiny apartment. It was a wonder why I had few friends back in grade school. It was a wonder that I had friends at all considering every time I brought a prospect over my mother would go off on how “humans were killing the planet with their wasteful ways, and that 50 percent of the world population was going to die from some form of cancer caused by processed food.”

After Hank stumbled out of our small apartment overlooking the El tracks off of Addison, my mom became obsessed with everything “All natural.” If you get my drift, she stopped shaving her legs and armpits, and in my opinion became a self-help addict, which went along with the whole vegetarian thing. The two go hand in hand. Our living room coffee table was littered with either books on “improving yourself through self meditation” or “how to find yourself through positive thinking.” Amidst the chaos of self-help books was also an assortment of vegetarian cookbooks and in one of them, my mother had found the recipe for the Potato Peel Broth which became our staple the summer before I turned fourteen.

I scrubbed the potatoes clean until my hands were raw and my fingertips bled. My mother lectured me through out my scrubbing that recently the pesticide DDT was banned, but you couldn’t take your chances. “All plants have been contaminated by it. In fact, the whole American heartland is contaminated by it, so scrub harder,” she demanded. My thoughts as I scrubbed bounced from the fear of catching some awful skin disease to the fact that I liked to eat dirt when I was a child, which led me to believe that I now had some form of cancer floating in my system that would crop up when I was at the height of my life and kill. I never mentioned these fears to my mother. She would have agreed with me and that would have only sent me into hysterics. So, I learned it was better to keep my mouth shut about my fears to my mother because she only made them worse by agreeing with me about them. She was not of the soothing nature. She liked to boast that she told it how it was, except in my opinion when it came to a good-for-nothing-user husband. But I never voiced my opinions to my mother’s poor taste in men. In the end it was always the two of us again, alone in a small apartment overlooking the El tracks.

I watched how focused she became in peeling those ugly potatoes, which reminded me of large turds; and yet, when their skins were gone, the white meat of them was transformed into “cute little baby butts.” Well, that’s how my mother described them as she cooed over them, sometimes kissing them before dropping them into the cold water. She tried to shape them into something beautiful; to make them something they were not. Kind of like Hank, she tried to pretend that he was loving and caring and not a jerk. But, in the end, I bet when he stood naked in front of my mother, she didn’t see a cute little baby’s butt; she saw a coarse man who she tried to appease by waiting on him hand and foot, thinking this would make him love her. I knew even back then you can’t buy love—love is love—you either feel it or you don’t. My mother felt it, but Hank didn’t. He loved the comfort of my mother’s bed, which he never got out of, and that was about it.

She confessed once to me later in her life that cooking helped her stop thinking about wanting a contented life. But back then with Joni Mitchell playing in the background and the plop plop of the freshly peeled and shaped potatoes hitting the cold water in the steel pot next to my mother’s feet, I thought she was content in cooking with me, in me, and in my presence, without a grumpy stepdad yelling for her to pour him another cup of coffee or for dinner to be ready. I thought maybe for those two hours with us elbow to elbow, she was happy just being with me.

Well, that’s another story for another day because I too later in life became a self-help-book-buyer addict, but back then, when I was thirteen and wearing my newly purchased bell-bottoms from Good Will and my white halter top, I didn’t think about figuring out my mother’s behavior. I just wanted to cook with her. I felt the real self-help book was a good cookbook. Cooking, in my opinion, or I should say for the part I played in it, the preparation of cooking helps gets your mind off the bad stuff in life. And the bad stuff for me at thirteen was helping my mother not to fall in love with another low-life loser who just sponged off her, sucked her dry, and then left her. Well, that’s how I saw it at thirteen, now that I am of a mature age: I see it as my mother being lonely. She was alone, and that scared her.

And I didn’t get that from a self-help book, I got that from living it, and feeling it alongside her. Now, being the same age as my mother was when I was thirteen, I know firsthand how loneliness can make you do stupid things, attract you to balmy sorts of fellows, who become unsatisfactory bedfellows, who then become disappointing husbands. My mother’s saying back then was, “Living a full life requires invention.” That summer she was trying all sorts of things to quell the sadness that had taken over her person. A sadness that I would later in life understand, but then at thirteen I only thought I was her sadness.

We ate a lot of potatoes, and my mother smoked a lot of herb that summer. Her blonde hair pulled back in a messy pony tail, she’d wear some sort of flowered skirt that reached down to the floor, complimented by some over-sized men’s shirt. She was covering up. She went into hiding on the living room couch, zoning out to the TV set. Her own mental pity party, she would say when I asked her what she did with her day. That summer was unusually humid and hot, but still my mother made her potato peel broth. And when I refused to scrub any more goddamn potatoes for her because we had no air conditioning in the apartment, and I wasn’t going to stand over the kitchen sink with only my underpants and bra on like she suggested I do. She did it herself, peeling those potatoes in her underclothes, listening to a Greg Allman record, and zoning out to the music and the monotonous motion of scrubbing and peeling.

Secretly that summer I drank Coke and smoked cigarettes in the alleyway behind my apartment with my new friend Brian. We also kissed and I let him feel me up. I was bored, and I thought well there is nothing better to do that summer. Because when I walked back up the front porch and found my mother zoned out on the couch with Bob Dylan playing on the stereo and the damn potatoes peels simmering away on the stove, I wanted to scream out a whole slew of expletives giving Ms. Williams an ear full. But, I didn’t. I went to my room which was now covered in Bee Gees and John Travolta posters, and imagined what my real father was like. Was he a loser, a drunk, a user, or was he a nice guy who got my mother pregnant and didn’t even know about me. Maybe it was a fling or a torrid romance, maybe it was love. A love that hit them so hard and sudden that they didn’t even know they were in love, until it was too late. Or maybe, my father was so in love with my mother that he couldn’t take it, and had to run from it. I’d never know because whenever I asked my mother about him, the man that made me, the man that I might look like, might take after, might become, my mother refused to talk about him. But, she’d talk about Hank ad nauseum as she scrubbed at those potatoes muttering under her breath, “what a good for nothing he was.” I worried sometimes that she’d peel her own fingertips off with them, but I never saw any blood as she declared to all of Chicago that she was done with men forever.

I began to hate potatoes. And I think my mother by the end of the summer began to as well because she stopped making the potato peel broth. We had so many plastic containers of it in our freezer that we didn’t know what to do with all of it. I secretly started feeding it to a stray dog I saw wandering around in the alleyway. Poor thing, I tried to catch him but he wouldn’t let me get close to him. He had a collar on, but I knew by his sad eyes that he had no home. So every night when my mom was zoned out on the couch, I heated up a pot of the broth and carried it down to the alleyway and hid it behind the garbage cans were I saw the dog roaming around, and left it for him. And every morning, it was empty.

I became obsessed about that poor dog roaming the streets of Chicago in search of food and shelter, so, I hatched a plan, which I whispered to one of my John Travolta posters. I told John that I needed that dog. I needed to help that poor dog, and if I could just catch him then I could find him a home or maybe find his old owner. And then I heard a howl, a long, drawn out howl coming from the alleyway. I sat up in bed to get a better listen, but the goddamn train thundered by, and I couldn’t tell where the howl was coming from. I jumped out of bed muttering words that I had learned from my mother. I pulled on my jeans and a t-shirt and went to stand on my back porch overlooking the alleyway. I saw something move quickly. I ventured down the stairs, but then I stopped myself, thinking it could be a giant rat. It is no myth that in Chicago we do have rats the size of small dogs. But a rat wouldn’t run. Rats stand their ground; believe me, I have seen this first hand. I ran back up my porch stairs and put on my sneakers and got a bowl of potato peel broth for the poor dog. I had forgotten to leave it out that night, and I thought that is why he is howling. I tip-toed down the stairs and placed the bowl of broth up against the garbage cans and then waited. I squatted down and prayed that the dog would come back. And he did.

I had always wanted a dog, but Hank wouldn’t allow it. He said the apartment was too small for a dog, and he didn’t like dogs. How could someone not like dogs? He grew up with the TV programs of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. That’s when I knew something was really wrong with the man.

Now two inches from this abandoned dog, who smelled like rotten eggs and motor oil, I knew I had to help this poor little creature. Well he wasn’t so little, he was a good-sized dog, but he was no Lassie. His coat was course and short, and he was a brown color. He reminded me of an Idaho potato, the kind my mother used to make her potato peel broth, the broth that I have been feeding the poor thing for over a week.

I closed my eyes, not wanting to scare him. I heard another train rock by. This did not deter the dog from lapping up the broth. When I opened up my eyes he was staring at me. I reached out and he let me pat him on his side, and I knew right then that I had to take him home with me, and I was going to make him into something beautiful. I was going to scrub his coat clean until my fingers became wrinkled from the warm water. I was going to name him, and give him a home, and I was going to love him the way he needed to be loved.

I don’t know if it was because he sensed that it was all right, or if he wanted more food, but he followed me home, taking the porch stairs gingerly. And then he stood waiting for me to open the door for him, and I reached down and gave him a pat on his big brown head. “You are like a big potato.” His tail started thumping. “I guess you got a name,” I said as I pushed open the back door.

The first thing he did was jump on my bed and make himself comfortable. I wanted to give him a bath right away, but it was too late, and I was tired, so I didn’t care that he smelled of the streets. He snored the whole night—we were both safe. I’d deal with everything in the morning, but right then, with my arms around this big strange dog, I felt safe. Tomorrow I’d give him a bath and explain to my mother how he was like a big potato, and how he needed us, and it was a sign or something that he loved the potato soup broth, and how he looked like a big Idaho Potato. She’d dig that—somehow it went along with the whole vegetarian thing and pot smoking, and her reinvention of herself after Hank left.